Judaism

Published on June 9th, 2015 | by Robyn Purchia

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Jewish Beliefs About GMOs

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Photo by Miran Rijavec available on Flickr

Like most environmental issues, the growing supply of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in food raises many concerns. Although GMO crops can feed more people, they also put people’s health at risk and degrade the environment. Small farmers can make more money growing and selling more crops, but buying GMO seeds gives corporations a lot of power over these small farmers. Along with these ethical concerns, religious groups must also wrestle with the theological issues GMOs raise.

When religion tries to apply ancient texts to modern technology there is rarely a clear answer. Application of Jewish laws and ethical traditions has burdened the GMO debate with numerous contradictions. In figuring out Jewish beliefs on GMOs we may be left with only one theological question: Can humans make God’s creation more perfect?

Jewish Law as it Applies to GMOs

Consistent with the principle that anything not expressly prohibited by God is permitted, Jewish law, or halacha, generally takes a permissive position on GMO food. But just because halacha doesn’t expressly prohibit GMO food, doesn’t mean it’s entirely silent on the issue.

The kashrut laws dictate what foods are kosher and what foods are not. While all plants are considered kosher, genetic material from non-kosher animals can be mixed with kosher foods. If this happens, most rabbinic authorities still consider GMO food kosher. Rabbi Eliyahu Bakshi-Doron, Chief Sephardic Rabbi of Israel points out that genetic material that is transferred from non-kosher species is not considered “food,” has no taste, and exists in such a small amount as to make it negligible.

Perhaps Bakshi-Doron’s thinking makes sense if the GMO food is already a kosher food. For example, genetically modified salmon (kosher) contains the gene of an eel (non-kosher), so that it can grow to market weight quickly. In this case, the eel’s genes would not affect salmon’s kosher status because the genes have no taste and exist in a small amount. But what if the genes of a pig (non-kosher) contain the genes of a cow (kosher), so that the pig has cloven hooves suitable for a Jewish market? Where do you draw the line?

On the prohibition of kilayim, or mixing of different species of animals and plants, described in Leviticus 19:19, Deuteronomy 22:9-11, and the midrash, the permissibility of GMOs is even more muddled. Most rabbinic authorities rule that the prohibition is restricted to interbreeding. It is permitted to engage in the non-sexual transfer of genetic material between different species of animals or between animals and plants.

But even without the sexual transfer of genetic material, genetic engineering of plants may be kilayim. Some halacha authorities say that genetic engineering of plants does not pose a problem unless the material transferred has the ability, if the plant is in the ground, to grow a complete plant on its own, which is seldom the case with GMO crops. But according to Rabbi Karelitz, a major halacha authority of the 20th century, transferring plant juices from one plant species to another can be considered kilayim if the juices have the ability to cause new growth of the donor species in the receptor.

The current interpretation of halacha does not expressly prohibit GMOs. But this could change as the field of genetic engineering expands and new species are developed.

Do GMOs Violate Jewish Ethics?

Although Jewish law may not expressly prohibit GMO food, that does not mean that it is ethically permissible. In Judaism, humans must work to bring the world closer to perfection and not further away. While GMO food may increase the quality and quantity of the world’s food supply — a benefit — it also could cause negative health and environmental impacts — a risk. Rabbi Tsvi Freeman urges Jews to scrutinize GMO foods closely to determine whether they are actually beneficial or detrimental to the environment and humankind.

Do GMOs Make the World More Perfect?

God created a world that was “good,” not “perfect.” Jewish tradition posits that humans were created in the image of God to be partner with God in perfecting themselves and the natural world. In a midrashic story, Rabbi Akiva is challenged by a Roman general to defend the Jewish practice of circumcision, the apparent mutilation of the Creator. Rabbi Akiva points to the conversion of wheat to bread to show that, sometimes, the work of God is unfinished and humans can, and should, provide the final touches.

But this doesn’t mean that all final touches are perfect. In the midrash, when God showed Adam the Garden of Eden, God warned Adam not to spoil or destroy the world, for if he does, there will be nobody after him to repair it. Religious laws, such as bal tashkhit the prohibition against needless waste or destruction, are supposed to prevent needless destruction.

Do GMO crops create a more perfect world? Did God want us to make wheat short and stubby so that it could support more fertilizer? Do the genes of an eel make salmon more perfect? There is no clear answer to these questions. Without clear guidance from God, Jews are left to exercise their own free will to determine whether GMO crops make the world a better place.

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About the Author

I'm an organic-eating, energy-saving naturalist who composts and tree hugs in her spare time. I have a background in environmental law, lobbying, and field work. I believe in God; however, I do not call myself a Christian or a Jew or a member of any religion. I am merely someone who finds a spiritual connection to all humans and the environment. You can find me on Twitter, Facebook, and .



  • marthaseymour

    There are some interesting connections here, but also some misconceptions about GMOs. GMO plants are NOT more productive than non-GMOs. And they do
    NOT increase either the quantity or quality of food. In addition, they carry grave risks to the environment and human and animal health.

    Recent studies show that organic food is far more
    nutritious, and (perhaps most importantly) carries little or no
    pesticides/herbicide residue. See http://www.consumerreports.org/cro/health/natural-health/pesticides/index.htm;
    and
    http://www.nytimes.com/2014/07/12/science/earth/study-of-organic-crops-finds-fewer-pesticides-and-more-antioxidants-.htmlaction=click&contentCollection=U.S.&region=Footer&module=MoreInSection&pgtype=article

    GMOs have steadily increased the use of ever-stronger and
    more dangerous pesticides and herbicides, and have produced incredibly resilient weeds, while killing butterflies and pollinators like bees. They capture small farmers in poor countries in a trap of more and more expensive imported fertilizers,
    pesticides/herbicides, and seeds they can’t save, and they poison the soil, air
    and water with toxic chemicals. These farmers are much better off with
    production systems like SRI that rely on better tilling methods and local
    inputs.

    GMOs are produced by huge companies with terrible records in
    health and environment. All the research calling them “safe” is done
    by these companies themselves and scientists who criticize them become the
    focus of campaigns to discredit them.

    The WHO confirms that Monsanto’s Roundup causes cancer. http://www.nature.com/news/widely-used-herbicide-linked-to-cancer-1.17181

    Women with high levels of pesticides in their bodies have more children with
    developmental problems who are more likely to suffer from asthma. Conventional
    hybridization is far less problematic, and problems like vitamin deficiencies
    are better met by fighting poverty, teaching methods like SRI, and even
    distributing vitamins, rather than waiting for the much-hyped but never
    commercially produced “yellow rice.” There is a huge mythology out
    there about GMOS, promoted by incredibly rich and powerful companies devoted
    only to their own profits. There is nothing ethical in the GMO system, and much
    that is morally problematic. For more evidence, see

    http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2014/02/10/140210fa_fact_aviv?printable=true&currentPage=all

    and read the debate between GMO propagandist Mark Lynas and
    Clair Robinson:

    http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/the-gm-crops-debate-campaigners-for-and-against-go-headtohead-10139833.html

    We owe it to ourselves and the planet to look beyond the misleading pronouncements of GMO producers.

  • Roger Price

    The modern Jewish position on genetically modified crops is not really muddled. For all but a few, kashrut does not seem to be a serious issue, nor does kilayim. The real questions relate to the safety of the crops, and, even here, for government approved and tested crops the evidence to date strongly favors GM crops. For more, please see http://www.judaismandscience.com/jews-judaism-and-genetically-modified-crops/

    • Eden Keeper

      Thank you for pointing me in the direction of your article. It was a wonderful read! I am a little hesitant to agree that government approved crops are safe; there is a history of lobbyists putting pressure on the government to approve practices without rigorous study. However, I do agree that the GMO debate is sometimes fueled by irrational fears and beliefs. I’d love to repost your article on EdenKeeper with your permission. Please let me know.

      • Roger Price

        Sure. You may repost. Thanks for asking. Let the conversation continue.

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